In the summer of 1996, I was sixteen, living in Atlanta, and about to start my senior year of high school. I also had a job as a clerk at Kroger Video, the local grocery store version of Blockbuster. Yes, that was a thing. I spent most of my days working or watching movies that summer. But, like everyone else in town, I was captivated by the Olympics coming to Atlanta. It was a big deal to be chosen as the host city and everyone was glued to the action. Then things took a dark turn with the bombing in Centennial Park. Having experienced this all firsthand, I was particularly interested in the new movie, Richard Jewell, that depicts the events.
Richard Jewell (Paul Walter Hauser) was a security guard working at Centennial Park during the Olympics. By chance he discovered a suspicious backpack in the park that turned out to be a bomb. Jewell helped to get hundreds of people to safety before the bomb went off. He was declared a hero, until an overzealous FBI agent (Jon Hamm) zeroed in on him as a suspect. Then an unscrupulous journalist (Olivia Wilde) got ahold of the story and ran in on the front page of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. Jewell suddenly went from hero to villain.
Hauser does an excellent job of portraying this wronged man. It’s sometimes a subtle performance, but still very effective. He makes you feel angry for his character as he’s targeted by the authorities. Sam Rockwell plays Jewell’s lawyer and brings some much-needed comic relief. Kathy Bates turns in a terrific performance as Jewell’s mother. She is the heart of the film, showing how this ordeal affected those closest to Richard.
What’s most interesting about this story and the movie is how law enforcement and the media, with little to no evidence, railroaded this man. They invaded his home, slandered him, and made his life unbearable. It was all for nothing because he was innocent. Side note, that’s not a spoiler if you remember the story or visit Wikipedia. Six years after the attack, the actual bomber confessed. But for many, Jewell is probably who comes to mind when they think of the bombing. It even took me a second to remember that he didn’t do it when I heard about this movie coming out.
My one complaint is that this history lesson is told with broad strokes and not a great deal of depth. It’s more informative than impactful. Also, Clint Eastwood’s direction comes off as flat. Even the moment when the bomb goes off seems anticlimactic. Similarly, Ham and Wilde’s characters often come off as one note villains. Eastwood could have taken more time to explore their characters and motivations. Despite these faults, I liked the movie and the opportunity to revisit a significant moment from Atlanta’s past.